Toward a Semiotic Model of Democracy

By Selg, Peeter | Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Toward a Semiotic Model of Democracy


Selg, Peeter, Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué


Introduction

Charles Tilly, the most influential democracy analyst of the preceding decades, sets an agenda for his last book Democracy, which he regards "as the culmination and synthesis of all my work on the subject" (Tilly 2008: xii). Locating himself among the camp of "process-oriented" rather than those of "constitutional", "procedural" or "substantive" analysts, and pointing to the limits of Dahl's (1998) approach among this camp, he proposes the following: "we want to do two... things: first, to compare regimes with regard to how democratic they are; second, to follow individual regimes through time, observing when and how they become more or less democratic (Tilly 2008: 10). Expressing the same point with well-known distinctions from the semiotic tradition, we could say that Tilly is looking for a model of democracy that could be utilized for both synchronic and diachronic analyses. Semiotic analyses are virtually neglected from political science, though current decade has witnessed some indications of their usefulness even in the most influential forums of political science (Wedeen 2002; 2004). In the field of semiotics it is worth referring to some recent works dealing with semiotics' relation to politics and power (Monticelli 2008; Steedman 2006, Bolton 2006; Mandoki 2004) and the possibilities for "political semiotics" as a discipline (Volli 2003; Selg and Ventsel 2008; Ventsel 2009a; Drechsler 2009;) and the issue of semiotic social sciences more generally (Heiskala 2003); we could also refer to concrete analyses of signs in political propaganda, campaigns, projects, framing, advertisements, identities and ideologies (Xing-Hua 2005; Zichermanm 2006; Ponzio 2006; Petrilli 2006; Clark and Jacobs 2002; Mcilwain 2007); or several analyses of the semiotic environment of the over-politicized societies (see Lepik 2002; Babayan 2006; Buckler 2006; Ventsel 2009b). Yet in both fields there is clearly a lack of distinct models of political phenomena from the semiotic point of view. This article takes steps toward that direction, offering insights on the possibilities for applying semiotic models on the empirical studies of democray. However, the aim here is to provide a six-fold model of democracy and clarify theoretical foundations of its categories from both semiotics and political analysis. The model offered constitutes a research program (to be subjected to future scrutiny) and the examples provided are preliminary illustrations and do not form an elaborated empirical research. Since this is a journal of semiotics we will presume the reader to master general strands of the discipline and spend considerably more time in explicating the political analysis side of the model offered below. The latter is but one among many possibilities. Its foundations from Jakobson, Tartu-Moscow school and the Essex school by no means exhaust the possible routes for semiotic theorizing of democracy. Yet the limited space and the expansiveness of the task require setting some restrictions to the exposition.

General theoretical foundations of the semiotic model of democracy

Our problem could be illustrated as follows. Laclau and Mouffe's work (1985) inaugurated one of the most influential strands of contemporary "discourse theory", referred to as the "Essex school". Denouncing sometimes explicitly 'semiotic' and 'cognitivist' approaches (see Laclau 2005: 110; Laclau 2004: 302, 320) and drawing from post-Wittgensteinian and post-structuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis, Laclau and Mouffe nevertheless seem to endorse the general view shared by many semioticians and cognitive scientists: "Synonymy, metonymy, metaphor are not forms of thought that add a second sense to a primary, constitutive literality of social relations; instead, they are part of the primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted" (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 110; cf Lotman 2001: 37; Lakoff and Johnson 2003: 144). This does not entail for Laclau and Mouffe any form of "idealism" that denies extra-cognitive or extra-discursive reality per se, since an event like earthquake "is an event that certainly exists, in the sense that it occurs here and now, independently of my will", yet "whether their specificity as objects is constructed in terms of 'natural phenomena' or 'expressions of the wrath of God', depends upon the structuring of a discursive field (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 108). …

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